I've mentioned this league before when I had a post about Japanese players appearing in North American minor league baseball card sets. During much of the 1990's, I was a big time minor league baseball card collector and I always tried to get cards of winter league teams because they were so odd. I'd gotten some Puerto Rican sets from the late 80's, a couple odd ball Australian sets and all the Arizona Fall League prospect sets. I'd even picked up the Lime Rock Dominican Winter League set from the early 1990's. For some reason, I was never able to get any Venezuelan cards. I even had card sets from the short lived successors to the HWL - the Maryland Fall League and the California Fall League. So each year I was looking for Hawaiian Winter League cards. The only year that there were cards for sale was the 1996 season. (Well, in the league's first incarnation - there have been cards for the 2006-08 seasons.)
Fast forward to 2001. Ichiro has signed with the Mariners and is taking the major leagues by storm. Imagine my surprise that someone has started selling 1993 Hilo Stars Ichiro Suzuki cards on eBay. Where did these come from and why have I never seen them before? I asked a friend of mine who's a major minor league card dealer about them - he's never seen them before either.
From what it looks like, there is a 1993 Hilo Stars team set that contains two cards of Ichiro Suzuki. They are card #1 and card #5 (his uniform number with Hilo) in the set. There are also rare "gold signature" inserts in the team sets for both cards. The website Collecting Ichiro lists these cards on one of their pages and has scans of them (as well as the 2001 "reprints" that also appeared that year). (Collecting Ichiro actually has a pretty impressive collection of Ichiro's Japanese cards and is worth checking out.)
Now, I'm not one to cast any aspersions around. But I wonder about a couple things:
- Nobody saw these cards before 2001. I was looking. So were others. We never saw them.
- Beyond the two Ichiro cards, the only other 1993 HWL card I've ever seen was of Jason Giambi who had been with the Kauai Emeralds. I don't remember exactly when in 2001 I saw this card (on eBay, posted by the same guy selling the Ichiro cards) but it was definitely after Giambi had been named MVP (since that was in 2000) and it may have conveniently been after Giambi had signed with the Yankees. So if there's a Hilo Stars team set containing two Ichiro cards, where's the rest of it? Or the rest of the Emeralds set?
- It's difficult to gauge how much of a prospect Ichiro was considered in the fall of 1993. On the one hand, he'd had outstanding numbers in high school and he'd led his minor league (the Western League I think) in batting in his first year as a professional (1992). On the other hand, he was a fourth (and final) round draft pick in the fall of 1991, he'd hit .253 and .188 in the majors in 1992 and 1993 and his manager through the 1993 season, Shozo Doi, didn't believe that he would ever hit with the batting style he used. But we're to believe that the Hilo set not only contains TWO cards of him, there were also gold signature inserts also? OK, he was the HWL MVP that year, but really? Two cards of a guy who might be a huge star in Japan but no one had any reason to expect was going to someday come to the United States (remember that this is a year before Hideo Nomo signed with the Dodgers)?